Long Shot has the skeleton of a romantic comedy, but the flesh on those bones has a lot of flavors: political satire, odd-couple comedy, celebrity culture, and ’90 nostalgia, to name a few. The screenwriters are Dan Sterling, who wrote Seth Rogen and James Franco’s North Korea movie The Interview, and Liz Hannah, who co-wrote Spielberg’s The Post. If you’ve seen those movies, you won’t be at all surprised by the intelligence, wit, and profanity of Long Shot.
Nor will you be surprised by the presence of Seth Rogen (Charlize Theron might throw you). Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, a dogmatic Brooklyn gonzo journalist who quits in protest when his alt-weekly is bought by Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), a right-wing, Rupert Murdoch-ish old lech who also has a TV news network where hosts wonder aloud whether women are too emotional to hold public office. At a fundraiser, Fred runs into Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), a childhood neighbor who babysat him when he was 13 and she was 16 and now happens to be Secretary of State. In need of a snarky writer to punch up her speeches while she explores the possibility of running for president, Charlotte hires Fred to join her team.
Several lines of comedy are established. Charlotte is elegant, refined, and glamorous (in public, anyway; privately, she swears like a sailor), while Fred is, well, Seth Rogen: dressed like a journalist, unkempt beard, a variety of drugs in his pockets. He’s an idealist who has principles on every subject and won’t budge on any of them; she’s a politician with a conscience who understands that “until you’re running the game, you have to play the game.” Charlotte’s haughty chief of staff, Maggie (June Diane Raphael), strenuously disapproves of Fred’s presence for all of these reasons, even more so when he and Charlotte become romantic. Maggie’s research shows that the public would rather see Charlotte with someone like the adorable prime minister of Canada (Alexander Skarsgard), not some schlubby, unemployed muckraker.
There’s also some political satire, though that’s where the romantic-comedy sensibilities take over. The sitting president (Bob Odenkirk) is a TV-star dimwit, but a harmless, likable one, not you-know-who. When the plot needs a minor international crisis for Secretary of State Field to address, a fictional country is used. The journalism buyouts, the celebrity references, and the casual sexism of the political scene are all very much of-the-moment, but the specifics are broader to give the movie a longer shelf life. Political satires are timely; rom-coms want to be timeless. So this one ignores the state of things in 2019 and goes for a general 2010s vibe, including a weak call for bipartisan cooperation that would have been fine a few years ago but is tone-deaf today. It also has a strong undercurrent of early ’90s nostalgia, with flashbacks to Fred and Charlotte’s teenage interactions and a performance by Boyz II Men.
Theron and Rogen have an easygoing chemistry together — more comedic than romantic, but we’ll take it. Director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) is at home finding humor in non-fantastical situations, and Rogen stirs himself to be more three-dimensional than his usual clownish characters. Theron, it turns out, can do anything, including all levels of comedy from low to high. A scene in which Charlotte must conduct state business while tripping on MDMA is exactly the right mix of absurd and realistic, Theron neither overplaying nor underplaying it. Elsewhere, she spars verbally and delivers zingers like a pro. Indeed, the one thing I find implausible about the movie is Charlotte’s need for outside help to show voters she has a sense of humor. (The beautiful woman choosing the dumpy guy is a cliche, but let’s be honest: It’s a very true-to-life cliche, and dumpy guys everywhere are grateful for it.)